So I’ve been a little slack in keeping up here. My hope is to change that, and to start writing more here than just sermons. In the meantime, I’m playing catch up. Below is a sermon preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer, on Easter 7 (28 May 2017). The readings can be found here, and you can listen to it below or over on the parish website.
About a year ago, I heard a story about the Ascension that captured my imagination.
Legend has it, that this was a story told by one of the desert fathers. No one really knows where the story comes from, but some say that St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nyssa told it to Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as they sat around the campfire. I do not know the facts behind this story, but I know it to be true. Following in their footsteps, I want to tell you an Ascension campfire story:
As Jesus began to rise, John just could not bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! To make matters worse, when Mary saw John’s plan, she too, jumped up, and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father . . . now what?”
A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said.
So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples could not bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who had heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people whom he had fed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God kept calling out, “Ascend!”
But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child.
“Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined that his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus could not stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling Jesus back up to heaven.
It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. The soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he pulled all of creation – everything that ever was, everything that is, everything that will ever be – Jesus pulled it into heaven with him.
This story, at least for me, expresses a deep and profound truth of Christian theology in a rather playful way. The vivid imagery of this campfire tale allows the fullness of our incarnational theology to come to life and be accessible in new ways.
In the Ascension, that miraculous event we hear about in today’s lesson from Acts, the incarnation cycle is complete.
The Word we heard proclaimed in the Prologue to John’s Gospel on Christmas Day;
the Word that was made flesh;
the Word that came into the world so that all who received him, who believed in his name, could become children of God;
the Word that God gave to humanity, out of love that is so profound it is indescribable, so that we might inherit eternal life;
has in fact redeemed us.
The ascension is so important to our salvation history because that “which is not assumed is not redeemed” to quote St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
Jesus takes the fullness of our humanity and ascends into heaven, thus elevating our sinful nature to the place it was intended to be from the beginning of creation. For when Jesus ascended into heaven, humanity became divine.
This is one of, if not the, most important tenants of our Christian theology and identity. St. Athanasius, whom many of you have heard me talk about before, is the Early Church theologian who first articulated this understanding of incarnation theology. Here is what Blessed Athanasius wrote:
He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He Himself was unhurt by this, for He is impassable and incorruptible; but by His own impassability He kept and healed the suffering men on whose account He thus endured.
Not only does the divine become human so that the human can become divine, but Jesus takes on our humanity that we might be able to see and know God. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Through the Word becoming flesh, we can see the unseeable, we can touch the untouchable, we can know the unknowable. As we hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel lesson: “and this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
To know God,
to be in relationship with God,
to see, and hear, and touch God in the person of Jesus,
is to have eternal life.
Throughout the entirety of John’s Gospel, eternal life is not just something acquired in the end of days – it is not simply an eschatological reality.
For John, eternal life is available in the here and now.
Right here, on Hope Street, in this very place, we have within our grasp eternal life. In this place we come to encounter God.
We come to learn and know God through the person of Jesus.
As we grow together as a community, as people of faith, we come to know God, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.
In those moments,
in that intimate relationship with God
we experience eternal life.
All of that is made possible, because God sent his Son into the world.
Because divinity took on humanity.
Because Jesus made God known to us in word, deed, and Sacrament.
Because Jesus died on the Cross, rose on the third day, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven.
Because that which is assumed is in fact redeemed.
No wonder the disciples gazed with awe into heaven as they watched Jesus ascend.
As the disciples were gazing toward heaven, watching Jesus ascend, “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”
Take a moment and imagine what it must have been like to be one of the disciples on that day.
You’ve just watched your teacher, your friend, your God rise into the clouds.
I do not know about you, but if I were there on that day and two random people asked me, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” I might have a rather sarcastic response.
While this dramatic encounter has inspired artists through the centuries, I find the end of the passage far more interesting and important:
When they entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers (Acts 1:13-14).
After witnessing the ascension the disciples, and the other followers of Jesus, went off and prayed together. This is the life of the disciples during this in-between period – during this time between the Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This is the formation of the first congregation in Jerusalem.
This group gathered in the room upstairs is our role model for what it means to be Church. Gathered in that room were real human beings, with names, identities, histories, and hopes – with fears, anxieties, and uncertainties. They followed Jesus as far as they could; then they waited for the coming of the Spirit as Jesus promised.
We too are a community of real human beings, with names, identities, histories and hopes. We come with fears, anxieties, and uncertainties. We strive every day to follow Jesus as far as we can, and when we can go no further we wait for the Holy Spirit to inspire and strengthen us that we might continue to fulfill our call as followers of Jesus. As we wait for the Spirit to descend into our lives we gather and we pray.
That is the gift of this in-between time. We are given the space to pause.
To gather as a community, to pray together, that we might listen for the Spirit of God in our lives and in this community. Through this prayer and discernment we prepare to act when the time comes.
There will be time for us to act – to go out and turn the known world upside down. But, we do not need to rush to get there – the time is coming – Pentecost will be here before we know it. We can stop, and sometimes we should stop, to gather together and pray.
What we learn from the disciples, what we can trust from the promises of Jesus, is that waiting in anticipation is not a bad thing. We can trust that God will do something in our midst. God will work in and through us to achieve God’s purposes on earth. We can trust that the Church – that all of us who make up the hands and feet of Christ in the world – will be empowered by the spirit to work and witness for the kingdom of God.
But for now, in this in-between time, we gather as a community to devote ourselves to prayer and contemplation.
We come in this posture of anticipatory prayer that we might know God more fully.
We gather together so that we might experience eternal life now.